Tuesday, April 8, 2008

MERRIE MONARCH – The Feel of Real Hawaii in Hilo

Merrie Monarch, a week long hula festival and competition, was held in Hilo, Hawaii the first week of April , as it has been for the past 45 years. The festival is dedicated to King David Kalakaua who reigned over the Hawaiian Kingdom until his death in 1891. He was a patron of dance and music and revived hula which had been forbidden by the missionaries. Merrie Monarch was started to promote the Big Island of Hawaii, but has matured into a major event for those dedicated to hula and an avenue for the participation in Hawaiian culture and to engage the next generation.

The hula participants are members of schools or Halau with a teacher or Kumu, usually attained through family succession. Hula is imparted and kept “pure” by the families that have instructed their children and other children often into adulthood in culture, language and dance.

The Kumu instructs the students in the steps and chants or meles and must gain acceptance into the competition for teams organized from their Halau. Halau’s exist all over Hawaii, on the mainland, and in Japan. Except the Miss Aloha competition, which is a young women performing hula alone, the competitions are amongst Halau that enter a group of men (Kane) or women (Wahine) - never mixed - performing ancient (pre 1890) hula (kahiko) or modern hula (‘Auana). The rule book for Merrie Monarch competitions are 20 pages long, to keep the art from departing from tradition. The Halau dancers practice their Hawaiian language, meles and chants, and synchronization intensely and Merrie Monarch is their outlet for showing their expertise, comparing it to other schools, and being exposed to other Kumu approaches and improvements.

For a week, everything in Hilo was all about Hula. During the week, my paltry Hawaiian language doubled and I learned that Hula is much more than dance; it is an expression of beauty, tradition, culture and pride. The Hula dancers drew me into their experience and passion, making me feel a part of it. In a crowded auditorium of family, friends, and hula lovers , the audience is part of the dance, an experience TV can’t replicate. Hula is non-discriminating; it is young and old, heavy and slight, man and woman. It impacts all the senses through music and chant, movement, vivid colors and the scent of flowers adorning the dancers. The intensive week had us attending daily hula demonstrations, the invitational traditional arts and crafts show, the Ho’ike (exhibition) night, watching competitions on TV until late in the evening, taking in the Merrie Monarch Royal parade, and attending the 3rd annual He Launa Aloha No Ka Mo‘i Kalakaua at Kalakaua Park.
They say Hilo is like old Hawaii. Our week of Merrie Monarch in Hilo was a wonderful and deep experience of Hawaii.
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